Authors: Carla Neggers
An idyllic cottage. An unlikely suicide. A conspiracy that could blow the lid off the Department of Justice.
Three months ago Quinn Harlowe left the high-pressure hallways of the Justice Department to become an independent consultant and have more control over her life – maybe even have a life. But the nirvana of her new gig is short-lived when Quinn discovers her friend and former colleague Alicia Morrow dead outside Quinn's bayside cottage. Suicide? Quinn is doubtful.
Investigating on her own, she soon discovers that someone is following her every move. Huck McCabe claims he's a bodyguard at Breakwater, a high-security compound near Quinn's cottage. But Quinn suspects he's lying, never imagining the truth: McCabe is an undercover agent trying to penetrate a violent network of vigilantes – the same people Quinn has identified. Joined by a common goal, Quinn and McCabe must fight the bastion of law and order… a fight they know could lead to disaster.
The fifth book in the U.S. Marshall series, 2006
Quinn Harlowe gave up trying to concentrate and tapped a few keys on her iBook, saving the file she’d been working on.
Defeated by an alphabet book, she thought, smiling at the little boy who’d crawled, book in hand, onto his mother’s lap at the next table. He made a face and turned his head away from her. His mother, flaxen-haired and smartly dressed, didn’t seem to notice and kept reading.
She was only on B. There was a lot of the alphabet to go.
Quinn took a sip of her espresso. The draft of the workshop she was giving at the FBI Academy next month would have to wait. She didn’t mind. It was just one o’clock on a perfect early-April Monday afternoon, and she was her own boss. She could work tonight, if necessary. Why not blow off an hour?
Thinking it would be cooler today, she’d worn a lightweight black cashmere sweater that now was too warm. At least she’d pinned up her hair, almost as black as her sweater, and had worn minimal makeup.
Four tiny, rickety tables, each with two chairs, and a row of big flowerpots filled with pansies passed for a patio at the small coffee shop just down the street from her office. Despite the gorgeous weather, she and the mother and son were the only ones outside, and the other two tables were empty.
Washington, Quinn thought, was never more appealing than in early spring.
She suppressed an urge to head off to Potomac Park and see the cherry trees-that would take the entire afternoon. Even native Beltway types like herself couldn’t resist the brief, incredible display of delicate pink blossoms on the more than three thousand Japanese cherry trees that lined the Tidal Basin in Potomac Park. The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which attracted tourists from all over the world, was winding down. In a matter of even just a day or two, the blossoms would be gone.
The mother was on the letter D. What would D be for? Quinn smiled-duck. Had to be.
She took a bite of her croissant, the bittersweet chocolate center soft but not melted. An indulgence. She’d have a salad for dinner.
Startled, she looked up, crumbs falling onto her iBook as she tried to see who’d called her.
Alicia Miller ran across the street, heading for the small patio. Instead of going around to the opening by the coffee shop’s entrance, she pushed her way between two of the oversize flowerpots, banging her knees.
“I need your help-please.”
Quinn immediately got to her feet. “Of course, Alicia.” She kept her voice calm. “Come on, sit down. Tell me what’s going on.”
Gulping in a breath, Alicia stumbled over an empty chair and made her way to Quinn’s table. “I can’t-you have to help me.” She seemed to have trouble getting out the words. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“Alicia-my God. What’s wrong?”
Tears had pasted strands of her fine dark blond hair to her cheeks. Her face was unnaturally flushed. Her eyes-almond-shaped, a pretty, deep turquoise-were red-rimmed and glassy, darting anxiously around her.
The young woman at the next table shut the alphabet book and grabbed her son around his middle, poised to run.
Quinn tried to reassure her. “It’s okay-Alicia’s a friend.”
But the woman, obviously not reassured, dropped the book on the table and lifted her son, his bottom planted on her hip as she swept up her slouchy, expensive tote bag and kicked the brake release on his stroller, pushing it in front of her toward the opening at the end of the flowerpots.
The little boy pointed at the table. “My book!”
“I’ll get you another.”
He screeched with displeasure, but his mother didn’t break her stride until she reached the sidewalk. She dumped the boy in the stroller, hoisted the tote bag higher onto her shoulder and was off.
Alicia didn’t seem to notice the impact she’d had on the mother and son. She couldn’t have gone to work today. Not in this shape, Quinn thought, concerned about her friend. They’d known each other since their days together at the University of Virginia, keeping loosely in touch after Alicia returned home to Chicago to work. A year ago, Alicia had headed back East, taking a job at the U.S. Department of Justice, where Quinn was an analyst. Not a great move for their friendship. Quinn’s departure from DOJ in January hadn’t helped as much as she’d hoped it might. She’d let Alicia borrow her cottage on the Chesapeake Bay for the last five weekends in a row, but not once had her friend invited her to join her, even for an afternoon.
Quinn suspected Alicia must have come straight from the cottage. She smelled like saltwater and sweat and wore a blue cotton sweater, jeans and sport sandals that looked as if they’d been wet recently.
Of Quinn’s friends and former colleagues, Alicia Miller was least likely to make a scene.
“Please. I need to…” She grabbed Quinn’s lower arm, her fingers stiff and clawlike as she struggled to stay focused on what she was saying. “I need to talk to you.”
Quinn touched her friend’s cold hand. “Okay, we can talk. Let’s sit down-”
She squinted, shutting her eyes. “I can’t think.”
“What can I do to help?”
Her eyes flew open. “Nothing! No one can do anything now. The osprey…” She screwed up her face, fresh tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes. “I saw an osprey tear apart a duckling. I think it was last weekend. It was horrible. The poor little baby.”
“I’m sorry. They’re birds of prey, so that sort of thing happens, but it’s not pleasant to witness.” Quinn kept her voice calm. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, anything?”
Quinn reached over to her table and flipped her iBook shut. “Not really. It’s a beautiful day. I’ve been resisting heading over to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. They won’t last much longer.”
Alicia mumbled something unintelligible. She couldn’t seem to stand still or stop fidgeting. This was beyond a touch of burnout and the stress of her job getting to her-today she appeared to be on the verge of a total meltdown. She jerked her hand back from Quinn’s forearm. “I can’t…I don’t know what to do.”
“About what? The osprey? Alicia…” Quinn hesitated, not wanting to say the wrong thing. “Why don’t we go back to my office? We can talk there.”
Her friend didn’t seem to hear her. “The osprey, the osprey. Quinn, the osprey.” Stabbing stiff fingers into her hair, Alicia gulped in three rapid breaths, fresh tears spilling down her raw cheeks. “The osprey will kill me.”
She stiffened her arms as if she was trying to keep herself from shattering into little pieces. Her movements were uncoordinated, jerky. In recent months she’d been openly restless, looking, she said, for more to life than her work, her next promotion, success-she just didn’t know what. Weekends on the bay were supposed to help her figure that out.
“Alicia, at least let me take you to your office. Someone there can help-”
“No!” She backed up a step, hitting Quinn’s table, startling herself. “I can’t-I can’t think.”
Alicia pushed at the air, as if she was trying to bat away something flying at her. Had the osprey preying on a duckling so traumatized her? Quinn reached for her briefcase, her cell phone zipped inside. If necessary, she’d call 911.
“No one knows I’m here, seeing you. I didn’t tell anyone.” Alicia lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself from moving. “Not a soul.”
Quinn felt a surge of helplessness. “Alicia, what’s wrong. Just relax-”
“Don’t tell anyone about me.” Her eyes seemed to clear, and her entire body stiffened. She took in a sharp breath. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
“Promise me.” But she didn’t wait for an answer, and whispered, “I’m not myself. I-I know I’m not.”
Ivan Andropov, the Russian immigrant who owned the café, came out onto the tiny patio in his white chef’s apron, holding up a cell phone in one hand. “What’s going on? I’m calling the police-”
Alicia gasped and bolted, knocking over a chair, pushing her way between two flowerpots.
Quinn waved a hand at Ivan as she climbed over the flowerpots, her three-inch high heels not as suited to mad dashes as Alicia’s sport sandals. “Don’t call the police, Ivan. She’s a friend.” She ran onto the sidewalk, but Alicia was already to the corner. “Alicia! Hold up. Nobody’s calling the police.”
She didn’t even glance back. At the intersection, a shiny black sedan pulled alongside her. It resembled half the cars in D.C.
The back door on the driver’s side opened.
Alicia jumped inside, and the door shut immediately, the window’s tinted glass hiding her from view as the car sped up the street.
Quinn kicked off her shoes and ran, but when she reached the corner, the car was out of sight. She hadn’t caught a single number of its license plate or so much as a glimpse of the driver.
Who had opened the back door?
If Alicia hadn’t told anyone she was here, how had the car managed to find her? Had she hired one for the day? But hiring a car seemed beyond her abilities. Physically, emotionally, she didn’t seem to be in a state to do much of anything on her own.
Quinn returned to the café, her iBook and briefcase on the table where she’d left them. She picked up the abandoned alphabet book and brought it over to Ivan, frowning at her in the coffee-shop doorway, his arms crossed tightly on his chest. He was in his early forties, round-faced and congenial, but he didn’t like scenes.
He took the alphabet book and grunted. “They’ll never be back.”
“Did you call the police?”
He shook his head. “I don’t like police. This friend…” Ivan seemed to exaggerate his Russian accent. “She’s crazy?”
“No. I know it looked that way just now, but no, she’s not crazy. We haven’t been that close lately-since I left Justice.”
His eyes widened. “She’s a lawyer?”
“Yes, but she hasn’t been in a courtroom since law school. I’m sure she didn’t go in to work today, not looking the way she did just now.” And acting, Quinn thought. “She’s been borrowing my cottage for weekends. She said she was a little burned out at work.”
“Maybe more than I realized.”
Quinn felt her hair coming out of its pins, but didn’t care. She had left behind the pressure-cooker atmosphere of working at Justice because she’d wanted more normalcy to her life. The flexibility of self-employment. A more gentle pace to her days, or at least a pace she could control herself instead of one foisted upon her.
While most of her friends had applauded her departure from DOJ, Alicia regarded it as a personal affront, a betrayal not only of friendship but of shared ambition, despite their different jobs and interests.
“I never imagined…” Quinn didn’t know what else to say. “I swear, Ivan, what happened just now isn’t like Alicia at all.”
“Drugs,” he pronounced, dropping his arms to his sides. “She’s on drugs.”
Quinn didn’t argue with him.
Wedged on the floor of the Lincoln Town Car’s back seat, Alicia Miller twitched and sobbed, no real words coming out, at least none that Steve Eisenhardt could distinguish. He was in back with her, trying not to show the Nazis up front how upset he was. He worked at the Justice Department with Alicia-he was her friend. If he’d had his way, he’d have been more than a friend. Lately, though, he hadn’t had his way about much of anything.
Yet even now, after he’d betrayed her to the goons up front, Steve found himself wanting to save her. He’d never felt so helpless. His shit parents, his yawner years at law school, his panic over passing the bar-nothing in his past came close to rivaling the mess he was in now.
He’d made his deal with the devil. Now the devil had come for his due.
Alicia kicked his shins in spasms she couldn’t seem to control. She’d worsened noticeably in the five minutes since she’d gotten in the car. She was more anxious, more incoherent. In her normal state of mind, she’d be horrified to see herself this way. She was a poised, cool beauty, a smart attorney, the adored daughter of Chicago doctors. He had never stood a chance with her. He’d come on board at DOJ two months ago, another ambitious lawyer with inherited money and political connections. Alicia would confide in him, advise him about toning down his “arrogance” and grace him with her friendship, but she would never consider him as a potential love interest. He wasn’t bad-looking-but not a stud, either. By Washington standards, he was pretty ordinary. Alicia Miller, however, wasn’t interested in ordinary.
And now her attitude had gotten her into serious trouble.
Steve leaned forward over the front seat. “If something happens to her and the cops check this car, you bastards better have the number of a good lawyer.” He thought he sounded relatively calm, although his voice was slightly more high-pitched than normal. “Her DNA’s all over the place back here.”
No answer from the two goons in front. He didn’t know who they worked for. He had ideas, but he didn’t want details. The driver looked like an SS guard. The other one was straight off a Hitler Youth poster-he couldn’t have been more than twenty. They both had buzz cuts, fullback shoulders, square jaws, lots of attitude and no sense of humor. None. Steve dealt with tension through humor. Not these bastards.
The SS guard pulled to the side of Pennsylvania Avenue and turned around to face Steve. He didn’t know the guy’s name. He didn’t want to know. The bastard’s yellow-looking eyes by themselves were enough to scare the hell out of the dead.
“Get out. Go back to your desk. You know nothing.”
Not even a glimmer of a smile. “We’ll be in touch.”
“I’ve done my part. You can’t keep-”
The Hitler Youth kid joined the driver in glaring into the back seat. “Out, now.”
Steve didn’t argue. He didn’t ask what would happen to Alicia. He’d received a call on his cell phone during lunch instructing him to be on Pennsylvania Avenue in ten minutes. The “or else” was implied. He hadn’t been threatened with maiming or death. Not yet. So far, the only threat was an end to his career, public humiliation, arrest and possible jail time.
The bastards had pictures of him and a prominent congressman’s fifteen-year-old daughter.
Complying with his instructions, Steve had raced to the appointed place, arriving in less than ten minutes. The Lincoln picked him up and whisked him off toward Dupont Circle. Alicia was wandering around D.C., and his job was to get her in the car. She trusted him. If she saw him, she’d cooperate.
They were right, of course, which he found only marginally comforting. If he was going to be blackmailed by Nazi goons, he wanted them to be smart Nazi goons, ones who wouldn’t get caught and expose him. He would do their bidding and hope they went away once they’d run out of dirty work for him.
When he’d spotted Quinn Harlowe, he had experienced a moment of panic. Quinn was a historian, not an attorney, but the Harlowes were notorious for noticing every damn thing. Probing, questioning, launching headfirst into danger. Quinn said she wasn’t like her forebears, but that was denial. Hadn’t she quit a secure job and gone out on her own at thirty-two? Wouldn’t it occur to her that she might need a few more years of salaried work under her belt, that she might just screw up and lose her shirt.
As far as Steve was concerned, courageous people made cowards like him look bad, and often got them in trouble.
He had to admit the situation he was in right now was his own fault. He’d been stupid and weak.
Fortunately, the car’s tinted windows prevented Quinn or anyone from seeing into the back seat, and the Nazis, experts in defensive driving, had moved fast.
But Steve knew he’d die with the image burned into his brain of Alicia’s look of relief turning to horror when she saw the two men in the front seat and realized he’d betrayed her.
The sedan stopped just long enough for him to hit the pavement, then pulled back onto Pennsylvania Avenue, becoming just another Lincoln Town Car on D.C.’s jam-packed streets, Washington’s notorious traffic even worse during cherry-blossom season. The annual two weeks of insanity would be over soon. With any luck, Steve thought, so would his month of nightmares.
He adjusted his suit coat and tie and took out a folded handkerchief, mopping his brow. Nothing he could do about his saturated shirt. He’d been sweating like a pig since the call to come meet these guys. Fortunately, he hadn’t had time to eat. Otherwise he’d have barfed up his lunch by now.
He slowed his pace as he approached the imposing neoclassical headquarters of the United States Department of Justice, a massive building that occupied the entire block between Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue. His excitement at finding out he’d be working under Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gerard Lattimore himself had faded in his two months on the job. Now he had not only betrayed Alicia, his only real friend at DOJ, but also the hundreds of superb, honorable DOJ employees who’d be tarnished by what he’d done.
But he was an aberration. Duplicitous, reprehensible. Scum. He’d known what he was doing, both with the congressman’s underage daughter and with Alicia. The kind of risks he took were never for anything noble or remotely worthy. With the congressman’s daughter-sexual gratification. With Alicia-saving his own skin. At least with his sexual escapades he could rationalize his behavior by deluding himself into believing he was the only one who got hurt.
But after seeing Alicia stuffed in the back seat of the Nazis’ car, whimpering and twitching, he no longer could deceive himself.
The goons can’t have any reason to want her dead.
Steve arrived at his cubicle. Who the hell was he kidding? These bastards were true believers. He had no doubt they’d kill anyone who got in their way. Alicia. Him. He didn’t know how Alicia had run afoul of them-he didn’t want to know. But, clearly she had.
A message from Quinn Harlowe was on his voice mail. His heart pounded as he listened to her tight, controlled voice, asking him to call her as soon as possible.
He checked his cell phone. She’d left a message there, too. He used it to return her call.
She picked up on the first ring. “Steve, thanks for getting back to me. I know you and Alicia have become friends-have you seen her this afternoon by any chance?”
“I haven’t seen her at all today. As far as I know, she didn’t come in to work. I thought she was still at your cottage. What’s going on?”
“I saw her about a half hour ago. I was having coffee down the street from my office, and she stopped by. She was upset about something and wanted to talk to me about it, but she ran off before I could find out what was wrong.”
“Why did she run off?”
“The owner of the coffee shop misread the situation and threatened to call the police.”
Steve felt a fresh rush of sweat on his brow. The police. “He didn’t go through with it?”
Quinn wasn’t one to get ahead of herself, no matter her sense of urgency. And she was loyal to Alicia. Their friendship might be strained, even on its last legs, but Quinn would never reveal compromising details regarding Alicia’s condition without more to go on.
“Alicia hasn’t been herself for the past few weeks,” Steve said. “She’s burned out. Everyone says it hasn’t been the same around here since you left-not that it’s your fault she’s on edge. What do you want me to do?”
“I’ll stop by her apartment and see if she’s there. I don’t want to make matters worse. She took off before I could get much of anything out of her, at least anything that made any sense.”
Good, Steve thought. Quinn was dismissing or at least couldn’t put together whatever Alicia had told her. He cleared his throat, wishing he could get the squeak out of his voice. “I’m sorry she was that upset.”
“Me, too. If she shows up there, or if she calls, will you let me know?”
“Absolutely.” His wet shirt felt cold now. “If there’s anything else I can do, call me. I’m just here toiling in the trenches.”
He didn’t get even a chuckle out of Quinn. She thanked him, promised to be in touch if there was news and hung up.
Steve slumped in his chair and blinked back tears. Hell. What a scumbag he was. He had met Quinn a few times at get-togethers after work with his colleagues, her former colleagues. She had a sense of humor and although she was very good at what she did, she wasn’t calculating and superambitious, common ailments among Washington types.
Wherever the Nazis were taking Alicia-whatever her transgressions were-he wished he could believe she’d be okay.
It’s out of my hands.
His calendar alert dinged. Five minutes until his afternoon meeting. Steve couldn’t even remember what it was about. Would Lattimore be there?
Swearing to himself, he opened up a bottle of water and drank it down without once coming up for air. He felt better, and got back to work on behalf of the American people.